What Is Google Really Fighting for?

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The future of the Android platform is hanging by a lawsuit, and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) ain't happy about it. And Android is but the tip of the iceberg.

What's up?
You knew it was the start of a public spectacle when Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) filed a patent infringement suit against Google last month, claiming that the basic building blocks of the Android software package infringe on seven Java-related patents. Gaining control of that patent portfolio may have been a big reason why Oracle wanted to buy Sun Microsystems in the first place, and here's the practical implementation of that strategy: I'm pretty sure that Larry Ellison wants license payments for Android sales rather than shutting the platform down. It just makes economic sense that way for a company with nearly no skin in the mobile game today.

Well, Google is taking this opportunity to call Oracle out for being a dirty, two-faced turncoat. When Java belonged to Sun and Oracle was a mere user of the software, the company pushed Sun to publish the code under an open-source license. That all changed when Java became an Oracle property, and this case has wide implications for the tech industry at large.

"It's disappointing that after years of supporting open source, Oracle turned around to attack not just Android, but the entire open source Java community with vague software patent claims," Google told TechCrunch. "Open platforms like Android are essential to innovation, and we will continue to support the open source community to make the mobile experience better for consumers and developers alike."

No big surprise
Tibco Software
(Nasdaq: TIBX  ) CEO Vivek Ranadive hinted at this outcome when Oracle first placed a bid for Sun, noting that Oracle's developer-phobic attitude would harm the Java community. If Oracle can go after Android with patent claims, who knows what platform comes next? The IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) WebSphere application server is built on Java technology. One of the sharpest weapons in the Red Hat (NYSE: RHT  ) arsenal is its JBoss Java application server. Anywhere you look, you see Java-based platforms and their developers searching for assurance that they won't be sued next. Yeah, many of them already carry proper licenses -- but maybe they shouldn't need to.

Of course, Oracle sees things differently: "In developing Android, Google chose to use Java code without obtaining a license. Additionally, it modified the technology so it is not compliant with Java's central design principle to 'write once and run anywhere.'"

And that stone-cold meta-response only enlarges the implications of this suit. At least some of the Java code is available under the GPL open-source license, which encourages others to not only use but to also modify the code. That makes the Oracle-Google suit an important test of that license's legal validity and may become the first true test of said license in American courts.

The real battle at hand
If the GPL is declared either invalid or unenforceable, the open-source model itself becomes very difficult to support or operate under. That's terrible news for Red Hat and Citrix Systems (Nasdaq: CTXS  ) , both of which use a global community of independent developers to bolster their own R&D operations.

In other words, Google is fighting the good fight for a much larger cause than just Android. Because Google doesn't collect license payments for Android, the platform could go dead today and Google wouldn't lose a nickel; in fact, the company would save money when it shuts down development and support efforts. The whole project is Google's effort to improve mobile Web experiences on every platform by pushing the technical envelope; keep Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and others honest by building a potentially better mousetrap, and consumers will accept mobile computing much faster. Competition breeds innovation, and that's all Google is doing here. Android development might as well be accounted for as a marketing expense, as far as Google is concerned.

Angel or demon?
If you still think Google is evil, you might jump to the conclusion that the company will just settle the suit, sign a Java license, and pass the costs on to consumers through license fees. That would be the easy way out, but it'd do nothing to defend the open-source model that Google claims to hold near and dear.

I believe we'll see a very different outcome. A drawn-out and expensive battle through layer after layer of appeals and maybe even retrials should lead to either a fully open-sourced Java platform or a full jury trial that settles the matter once and for all. It will take years, and Java itself may be obsolete by the time the case is closed. But this is the right thing to do, and Google will see support from an entire industry of open-source specialists.

Would Google be insane to go through all this trouble and expense for what I just called an inconsequential business operation? In a narrow sense, yes -- but there's a much larger game afoot that Google needs to win for the survival of its very ideals. Without them, the company is dead.

Continue the discussion in the comments below -- I'm running out of breath.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. Google is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, International Business Machines, and Oracle. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (4)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2010, at 6:24 PM, notnokia wrote:

    Sun sued Microsoft years ago over their attempts to subvert "write once, run anywhere" capability of Java. They prevailed, and Microsoft stopped producing it's perverted, Windows-only Java. Nothing is stopping Google from using alternative technologies, if they don't like the licensing terms of Java. If they choose to use it, but don't abide by the agreement, then Oracle has a real case. Arguments about the wonders of open source are a religious issue, and not a merit on which the case will be decided.

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2010, at 10:16 PM, ikkoku94 wrote:

    Google is not making any money from Android?


    "The company does not make money from Android directly. It gives the software away to hardware partners. Google reckons that Android gets more people onto the Internet, where Google can show them ads. Google CEO Eric Schmidt says Android-based phones already generate enough new advertising revenue to cover the cost of the software’s development. Google could make money in other ways too, for example, by opening an online store to sell music and videos to Android users. Schmidt envisions a day when there are 1 billion Android phones in the world and notes that if Google could get just $10 from each user per year, it would be a $10 billion business. That’s real money even for Google, whose revenues this year will be $21 billion."

  • Report this Comment On October 06, 2010, at 10:31 PM, slangbean wrote:

    This is an intellectually dishonest article. Oracle is suing to enforce the Java license requiring implementers of Java to fully support the standard, not bits and pieces of it as they see fit. Android does not support some Java libraries such as AWT and hence cannot be considered a complete implementation. The most important part is that Java was and still remains free, even after the Oracle acquisition. Google does not have to pay a dime to Oracle when signing the Java license, so this is not about money and the comment that Google might "pass the costs on to consumers" is just a load of BS. Do some research before writing your articles.

  • Report this Comment On October 07, 2010, at 7:44 PM, nin4086 wrote:

    agree with other comments. this article is pure nonsense. fortunately, it will be judged by the judiciary and not an election where nonsense PR stunts like this article are more effective than rational arguments.

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